6 Smart Tips for How to Handle Picky Eaters at the Holiday Table
“Is that all she’s going to eat? Back in my day, we weren’t allowed to leave the table until we’d finished every bite of food on our plate!”
While it may be well-intentioned, comments like this are also supremely irritating to parents dealing with a picky eater. It’s frustrating when your kid refuses to try food that you or your family invested a lot of time and energy preparing. Unsolicited parenting advice and interrogations from family and friends make it even more stressful. So what should you do when your child refuses to try grandma’s sweet potato casserole or your sister-in-law’s famous pecan pie? Take a look at our tips for how to handle picky eaters at the holiday table.
1. Talk to your children about what’s expected of them.
Discuss the types of foods that will be available and your expectations, whatever they may be. If you have a spouse or partner, make sure they’re on the same page, too. It also helps to give kids some prepared responses to use when they’re hit with the inevitable “Aren’t you going to eat that/finish that/ try that?” Give your child permission to say “No, thank you. My parents said I don’t have to eat anything I don’t want to.” Be aware that you may have to step in, though. If you have a relative who’s trying to coerce or shame your child into eating, you don’t have to tiptoe around them with politeness. A firm “please stop” from you should shut down any pushiness.
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2. Talk to family members about your expectations.
If you're worried about what family members might say, you can talk to them in advance – especially if they have a habit of trying to bully, pressure, or shame your child into eating more or less of certain foods. Dr. Katja Rowell, a co-author of Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating, recommends using the phrase, “Please follow my lead.”
Try to talk with your family member(s) privately before the meal and explain that your child is expected to be polite and participate, but they are allowed to choose what they will eat from the table and how much. Ask your family members not to push them to eat more or praise them if they do try something new. End by saying, “I know it’s not how you would handle it, but I hope you can just follow our lead.” After that, when they fall into old habits during the meal, a polite but firm, “Mom, please follow my lead with this” should be enough of a reminder for them to back off.
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3. Lower the bar.
Be sure to check your own expectations for the family gathering. Holiday meals are wrought with distractions for children, from playing with visiting cousins to parades and football games on television. Now is not the time to loom over your kid at the dinner table, browbeating them to eat more. You can always offer new foods, but don’t nag or cajole them into it if they don’t want it.
4. Bring a “safe” dish.
There are usually a few things on the table most kids will try: plain turkey or chicken breast, bread, or mashed potatoes. There will probably be a lot of dishes that are more challenging though, like casseroles, stuffing, and elaborate desserts. If you’re visiting another family for the gathering, offer to contribute a side dish or two that you know your child will eat. If you’ve got a toddler who’s a picky eater, you may even consider bringing a little something just for them. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of crackers or chips, or some cut-up fruits or veggies with dip.
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5. Find a place for downtime.
Locate a quiet spot in the house (maybe an office or a spare bedroom that’s close by) where your child can go with their video game or book if they need a break. Check on them often or sit with them for a bit. Let them know they’ll have an opportunity to have a bedtime snack they enjoy later when they get home.
6. Focus on the big picture.
Remember, a holiday dinner is just one meal. If your child eats a roll and two bites of mashed potatoes, it’s not the end of the world. Offer nutritious options you know they enjoy at other times during the day and week. As Dr. Rowell advises, “Let your child be a participant, not the focus of the meal.” She suggests starting a new tradition where everyone at the meal lists two things they are thankful for. Concentrate on the company, not the food.
Go into a holiday meal hoping for the best, but be prepared if things go sideways. Maybe your family will surprise you and “follow your lead” by sitting down to a delicious holiday meal with a smile and the intention to appreciate the company.
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